What is a good work rate for a young academic or PhD student?

Some years ago, a colleague referred me to a very useful study on academic productivity.

Robert Boice (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Pearson. (288pp)

Boice worked as a professional development adviser to young academics and did some particularly good down-to-earth research work observing their working habits. 

In short, Boice found an approximately 9-fold difference in productivity between academics who work little-and-often and those who save up all their energy for a "I will sit down and get it done" sesssion - or for what Boice calls a "binge" session.

I have wondered whether two approaches to work will really lead to a 9-fold difference in productivity?  And, if such large differences in productivity exist, then what little-and-often really entailed.  As a writer of long documents, and a prime mover behind ScholarWriter, does ScholarWriter helps us work with this pattern?

Is a 9-fold difference in productivity realistic?

In my experience, yes. Academics may not separate neatly into super-publishers and those that are not. But, scholars who finish their PhD's and finish them reasonably on time, have achieved an outcome that has eluded those who walk away, or whose thesis languishes in a cupboard for years.

I also dimly recall seeing a 7-fold figure before -- I suspect in work on tacit intelligence.  Boice’s figures are for successful young academics who complete, on average 1.8 manuscripts a year, compared with the 0.2 manuscripts of unsuccessful academics.  The 7x figure was the publishing rate for highly successful professors.

So yes, I do thing that super-differences in productivity may exist.  But the exact figures matter little.  What matters is whether frequent publishing is a matter of luck or genius and is essentially inimitable -- or whether frequent publishing is a matter of the way we exercise our craft, and therefore something we can practice and learn to do -  at least, to learn to do reasonably well.

What divided the successful young academics from the unsuccessful young academics?

Boice appears to have used what we would now called "grounded theory" to find the working habits that distinguished successful from unsuccessful early careers. He observed young academics and then worked backwards to the characteristics that distinguished them.

Simply, successful academics were more playful and more relaxed.  But, they were disciplined in a particularly important way. At any one time, they were writing something. And, they wrote little and often -- usually in early morning so they had done their writing for the day before the day became hectic and unpredictable.  They worked for one and one-and-a-half hours only in a relaxed way taking several breaks.  Or, put in other words, they wrote for 10 to 15 minutes, and took a mini-break, for a few times and continuing for longer than one-and-a-half hours, first thing in the morning. 

Slowly but surely, their papers got written.  Moreover, they experienced writer's block less often.  And, even when they did, they sat down and did something. They went over what they had written. They revised their outline. Or, they simply free-wrote and used their stream-of-consciousness to develop their ideas.

They were disciplined about working every day for a short period. They were craftsman-like in their approach to their work and did not wait to be "in the mood".  Watching them, Boice coined the adage: “Start before you are ready”.

Writing was a clear priority for successful academics and happened at a leisurely but craftsman-like pace without crowding out all their other pleasures and responsibilities which they attended to later in the day.

How does ScholarWriter help you work "little and often"?

There are several features of ScholarWriter that help us reduce procrastination.  The most important, I think, is not an obvious GTD (get things done) tool. 

ScholarWriter encourages Outlining.  Boice does too. I've always noticed that Americans are taught to Outline where I don't believe Outlining was mentioned at any time during my (good) Commonwealth education.  Indeed, British students react with horror at the idea of putting some sub-headings into a term paper.

ScholarWriter comes with a basic outline of a scientific paper: Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion.

Each section can be further broken down into "Child Pages". To structure the Method, for example, we add a Child Page for the Sample (or Participants), another Child Page for Equipment, and a further Child Page for Procedure.

If we anticipate that any of these sections will be longer than a paragraph, we break the Child Page into further Child Pages, growing an upside tree where the final Child Pages are short – a paragraph long – and serving a very a clear purpose to our overall argument.

Of course, at the outset, we may not be clear exactly what will go into each paragraph.  That is the challenge of writing.

When we work with pencil and paper, or in Word, we would probably write, and then discover the structure of our argument. At that point, we write out an outline and we would re-jig our text to fit the outline, and write it all out again. 

And, we may do this several times until our paper is tight, clear and accessible.

The Outlining feature in ScholarWriter cuts down on some of the physical work.  As we take notes on an academic article, for example, we can "drop" the notes into an Outline. Actually, we just drop a hyperlink into the Outline. Our notes are not moved around the way we have to in Windows Explorer.

If we dropped, say five hyperlinks, into our Sample section, we might arrive at one of two situations:

  • We are ready to write up that paragraph
  • We want to break that paragraph up into two or three sections - e.g., whom we recruited initially to take part, who remained in the study until the end, and how the self-selection of our participants changes the status of our study.

ScholarWriter makes the to-ing-and fro-ing between the Outline and our collection of material is much easier. We are keeping track all the time of how much material we have collected and visual reminders of our collection prompts us to revise the Outline a small sections at a time without losing sight of the total structure.

Moreover, we aren't tempted to start writing until we have the facts, figures, quotations and references to write any section.

That is not to say that we won't free write though. Free writing is an essential part of discerning the connections between material.  ScholarWriter also has a facility for free writing.  We simply open a blog post and type away, save, and drop it into the correct section in an Outline.

While there are several features of ScholarWriter that make it easier to work 'little and often', ScholarWriter's use of the Outlining feature that comes with Drupal, on which it is based, allow us to collect what we need for a single paragraph and work on it.  A paragraph a day may not seem very much, but in a typical 10-week semester, that would amount to 50 paragraphs and in all likelihood 10-12 pages of text.  No more excuses for not writing while under-graduates are around!

Writing prompts

As an additional feature, we have included writing prompts to help you decide on the Child Pages for the larger sections, particularly the Introduction, Literature Review and Discussion.   The prompts can be ignored.  And, the prompts can be replaced.  Experienced writers will put in their own.  Coordinators of large dissertation programs are likely to add their own prompts that they want answered pithily in student proposals and presentations.

I find the prompts very helpful at the outset to guide my search for material and for pinpointing what I am researching.  It sounds daft to natural scientists, perhaps, but in social sciences we are often so caught up in the abstract, it is helpful to be brought down to earth and ask some pointed questions about what I am really trying to a achieve in a research project.

Inevitably, the structure of my outline changes as my knowledge of the field grows.  And ScholarWriter accommodates this evolution easily.  I can remove a hyperlink from one section and add it to another in a few clicks.  I can add Child Pages and I can drop them. And I can re-order my sections and their content in a drag 'n drop menu.

Writing begins for me immediately that I begin researching a topic.  And, continues everyday even if I have been doing something mundance such as using Endnote to find references.

Little and often.  It is productive. It is motivating.

A powerpoint on Boice

I was once confronted with just short of 1 000 students in Management who wanted to know how to make their "effort bargain" with their new university careers.  I used Boice's figures to define and illustrate the best approach to university work.  They were surprised - so many of us are taught to believe that we are not working if our work is not grueling.  They certainly settled down.  And many expressed immense relief that not only were they not expected to work all hours of the day and night, but that it was unlikely to do them any good at all. 

Little and often with a good out-of-work life is what we recommended.   For what it is worth, here is the powerpoint.  But if you are starting out on a PhD or an academic career, seek out Boice. If your Library does not have it, get it on Inter Library Loans, or find the person who controls your Library budget and get them to buy it!